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Voters to Fill a Vacancy in the House

Voters on Tuesday will choose the next occupant of Travis County's HD-50, and a Senate candidate has dropped a six-figure sum on ... billboards

The crowded House floor during debate on SB 1 April 4, 2013.

Voters in northern Travis County are choosing someone to fill the House seat left vacant when Mark Strama left the chamber to head Google Fiber's efforts in Austin.

The candidates in the runoff election, Celia Israel and Mike VanDeWalle, were the top two vote-getters in the first round of the special election on Nov. 5. VanDeWalle, the lone Republican in the race, won Round 1 with 39.2 percent of the vote. Israel, who beat out two other Democrats for the second spot on the runoff ballot, won 31.8 percent of the vote.

Predicting turnout in a special election is notoriously tricky, especially when it is taking place on its own and not on a broader election day. That said, Israel would seem to have a few advantages.

Yes, VanDeWalle won a plurality in Round 1. Looked at another way, 60 percent of the voters didn’t choose the Republican on the ballot. The question is whether Israel can hold on to her own voters from the first round as well as the voters who backed the other two Democratic candidates.

Israel presented herself as the candidate who paid her dues to get this far, and she enjoyed the support of the Travis County Democratic establishment, which could be a key to keeping turnout up in a special election.

And as a realtor, Israel has the backing of the Capitol’s most deep-pocketed trade association. Since Jan. 1, Israel has raised more than $75,000 — half of which came in the form of in-kind contributions from the political arm of the Texas Association of Realtors. VanDeWalle, a chiropractor, raised $10,615 from various other sources. His biggest contribution was a $4,000 donation from the political arm of the Texas Chiropractic Association.

Going into the election’s final week, Israel had a nearly 10-to-1 advantage in cash on hand — $76,379 to $8,003.

VanDeWalle’s consultant, Craig Murphy, points out, though, that the Republican had a sizable 1,100-vote lead after the first round. And with turnout looking to be about a third lower than the first round, he said Israel must ensure turnout among voters who chose neither of the candidates on the runoff ballot. If she doesn't, he said, VanDeWalle wins.

No matter who wins this time around, the pair will meet again in November, as both face uncontested primary elections. But one of them will go into the rematch having sat in a few interim legislative hearings and, more importantly, with an (I) behind his or her name.

* * * * *

Even after you’ve looked at literally thousands of lines of campaign finance disclosures, every so often you’re still going to see one item that makes you stop and say, “Hmmm.” Like this: $123,581.13.

That figure comes from the Jan. 15 campaign finance report of SD-31 GOP challenger Mike Canon, the former Midland mayor who is challenging incumbent Sen. Kel Seliger, himself a former mayor of Amarillo, in the Republican primary.

That's what Canon spent on billboards.

Billboards? In this day of advanced microtargeted voter outreach and digital advertising, this might seem a throwback — except, perhaps, in those expansive West Texas districts, where catching people in their cars might make more sense than spending big sums to chase voters across multiple media markets.

Jack Bush, speaking for the Canon campaign, confirmed the billboard buy, noting that the advertising aims to create awareness and name ID. Canon billboards pop up the length and breadth of the district, from Odessa and Andrews to Dumas and Dalhart.

As a footnote, Bush noted that the initial buy was even bigger before the campaign decided to drop Midland from the list of billboard sites.

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